Historians refer to the period from about 800 to 200 B.C.E. as “the Axial Age.” As an axle is central to a wheel, so the Axial Age is central to humanity. It was a pivotal era that spawned humanity as we now experience it.
The Axial Age involved massive transformation. It saw the rise of Taoism and Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, rational philosophy in Greece, and monotheism in the Middle East. Why did only the Chinese, Indians, Greeks, Iranians, and Jews embark during the Axial Age on a grand quest for salvation? Historians aren’t sure. Even though the Babylonians, Sumerians, and Egyptians developed great civilizations, they did not initially develop an Axial ideology. (Christianity and Islam were later restatements of the earlier Axial ideology.)
The Axial ideology had one starting point. As Karen Armstrong put it in her fine biography of the Buddha, the fundamental conviction was “that the world was awry.” This is the recognition that life is unsatisfactory and flawed. It’s normal to be discontent and dissatisfied. There is too much pain, suffering, and sorrow. Our lives are full of dread and anxiety.
Some react to the sometimes seemingly unbearable sadness by distracting themselves unto death, by becoming true believers, by falling into fanaticism. Others react to the confusion with a determination to seek a way out, by becoming philosophers. Successful philosophers are sages.
Axial sages became convinced there is an absolute reality that transcended all worldly tragedy, humiliation, injustice, cruelty, pain, and sorrow. They told others that there was a way for a moral individual to uncover a lasting domain of peace, freedom, and incessant joy. They didn’t keep their discovery a secret; they told anyone who would listen about it.
It was this spiritual change that led to sweeping economic, social, and political transformation. The truth was that the old ways of living, based on magic, weren’t working well. The new ways of living, based on morality, could work well. Axial sages were determined to break the delusive bonds of ignorance and delusion and wake up to a wonderful new way of living.
The result was what has come to be called the Perennial Philosophy that includes among its chief ideas, as William James puts it, “that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come.” The task of living well came to be understood as the task of dissolving the little self in order to unite with the big Self.
For example, the Buddha, a great Axial sage, was himself a typical philosopher, seeker after wisdom. He sought a natural state of peace and freedom called “nirvana” [“blowing out”] that could be attained by anyone willing to pay the price by doing the hard work of dissolving attachment to the little self. He thought this state of unending joy was available in the present moment even in the midst of our imperfect world. He believed there was a cure for the sickness that plagues humankind.
What if he was right?
Why don’t you find out for yourself?
What could be more worth doing?